Things are changing for Ahmed el Tayeb, who last week was named Grand Imam of Al Azhar Mosque and Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar University, the most influential school in Sunni Islam.
New leadership for Al Azhar
Mr el Tayeb's appointment was a bit of a surprise but he is far from an unknown. As he succeeds Sheikh Tantawi, who led Al Azhar for 14 years until his death earlier this month, Mr el Tayeb is not likely to be a place holder. His close associates expect him to introduce "major change" and Mr el Tayeb's record of inviting, and even igniting debate, suggests as much. He has also not shied from drawing a firm line when he has felt it necessary. When students at Al Azhar who were also members of the Muslim Brotherhood staged a military style parade in 2006, he compared them disparingingly to Hamas, Hizbollah and the Republican Guards of Iran.
His appointment by Hosni Mubarak has also invited criticism from those who oppose the Egyptian president. This is no surprise. While Al Azhar has international significance, its operations still depend in large part on financing and support from Mr Mubarak's government. Mr el Tayeb has been a champion for tolerance but has shown little patience for those who remain intolerant. "God created diverse peoples," Mr al Tayeb said in 2007. "Differences between people, whether in religious beliefs, thought, language or emotion, are a basic Quranic tenet." These statements, along with his western education, have earned him the ire of many fundamentalists.
On a recent anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Mr el Tayeb proclaimed that "Islamic discourse was in dire need of review". But there is always the risk that such a review can blind rather than illuminate. Constructive change often requires institutions with historical, intellectual, and religious credibility. Al Azhar is one such institution; Mr el Tayeb is well suited to lead its efforts.